Sadly, part of Travellers’ daily lives is their experience of racism- denial of their identity, direct discrimination and indirect discrimination. While this does not define Travellers the belief that Travellers are not a separate ethnic group and attempts to stop Travellers being Travellers is the key driver that creates the issues Travellers face in Ireland today, in terms of accommodation, education, employment, health (and mental health).
What is Racism?
Racism is a belief that one group of people is superior to another. It accounts for people believing that differences in character or ability are due to someone’s ethnicity. It can manifest itself in both individual and institutional forms. Individual racism is often easier to establish.
At a simple level, individual racism is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different ethnicity based on the belief that one’s own ethnicity is superior. For individual acts of anti-Traveller racism, examples would be:
- Denying Travellers access to a pub or shop,
- On-line hate-speech,
- Physical or emotional abuse based on someone’s identity
- Traveller children being bullied in schools,
- Travellers not being called for interview for jobs based on their address
- Non-Travellers campaigning against sites being built in their locality
Individual racism can, in theory, be challenged by legal means, for example by the Equal Status Act (see below)
Institutional or Structural Racism
Institutional racism is more complex, and often harder to identify and its impact is more far wide-reaching. It requires larger strategies to challenge it and overcome it. This defines racism as:
An institutionalised system of power. It encompasses a web of economic, political, social, and cultural structures, actions, and beliefs that systemize and ensure an unequal distribution of privilege, resources and power in favour of the dominant racial group at the expense of other racial groups.
Examples of institutional or structural racism would be where systems or practices are put in place which intentionally or unintentionally ensure that Travellers cannot achieve equality or remain outside the system, which has its benefits directly or indirectly for those who manage the system. Examples of institutional racism are:
- Denial of Traveller ethnicity
- The absence of Traveller culture, in for example, the education system
- Development of laws which criminalise Traveller culture: control of horses act, market trading act, housing miscellaneous provisions (nomadism) act
- Lack of political will to deliver on Traveller accommodation
- Travellers being unable to get jobs due to lack of education opportunities
Institutionalised racism results from policies that dominant groups’ culture as being superior, including paternalistic views that there is a “right” way for people to live, including assimilation policies.
Internalised racism/Internalised Oppression
Internalised racism results from the impact of institutional racism whereby members of a minority group, individually and collectively, start to believe and internalise values of racism. It results in negative self-images, low expectations of people themselves but also of their community. Thomas Mc Cann in a presentation at the ITM AGM in 2012 said that “We struggle with this internalised oppression every day of our lives until we liberate ourselves from it.” Click here to read the Presentation in Full (link to Thomas Mc Cann presentation in publications and resources).
Internalised racism results in Travellers turning inward, that the non-Travellers are superior and that racism is acceptable (that those experiencing racism “deserve” it). Internalised oppression /racism has huge impacts on how people view themselves and people’s mental health, which naturally can have a huge impact in how people deal with conflict.
Thomas Mc Cann identifies that “Reducing the impact of internalised racism and oppression results in feeling much better about ourselves, our family and also about our community.”
At the core of anti-Traveller racism is the assumption that nomadism is not a valid way of life. The State response has been to outlaw it and measures taken have been to “assimilate/absorb” Travellers- to stop Travellers being who they are: the dominant powers view Travellers as “less than” settled people, as people who need to become something else (which can easily be defined as cultural genocide)
If anti-Traveller racism views Traveller identity as inferior, the next stage is denial of that identity and the assimilation of Travellers (see diagram). Assimilation is an institutional response to ethnicity denial, which leads to the issues we see today. From this what is often referred to as “Failure in delivery” of accommodation, is in fact, a successful policy of identity denial and anti-Traveller racism.
History of Anti-Traveller Racism
Anti-Traveller racism is a huge problem which has its roots in history. Traveller organisations tend to focus our analysis on the Commission on Itinerancy (link to the ITM review of the Commission in Publications & resources section) as the root of all anti-Traveller racism and flawed State response. However, most historians would argue that the divide between Traveller & non-Travellers that goes further back, before the formation of the State. Similar clashes of culture between nomadic and sedentary people can be seen all across the globe.
If you have nomadic people who view land as a collective resource, in shared ownership (“commons”) there always will be conflict once people enclose land, restricting it for personal or family use (which began in the 16th Century, often by force, and is heavily linked with industrialism in the 19th Century).
With the rise of nationalism in the late 19th Century in Ireland and in Europe, defining who “belongs” in a Nation becomes a topic of intense debate. Nationality needed to be “invented”, creating a common bond of people to be united in one country. This process of identifying who the “folk” are for one nation inevitably leaves groups outside who become “others” who are not identified with the emerging nation states. In Ireland, the history of the nation has to be invented, by creating a sense of a unified people, who are linked with the land as farmers, tenants and share an identity based on this. Travellers, who aren’t linked as traditional landowners are always going to be viewed with distrust based on this distinction.
Much of the marginalisation of Travellers from the settled population results from loss of common lands and the fundamental differences in how sedentary and nomadic people view land use. These differences were exacerbated by rapid changes to Irish society in the 1960s including the mechanisation of farming, the cheap availability of plastic and rapid industrialisation, which proved to have huge consequences for Travellers. These changes resulted in the loss of defined roles which not only provided income and status for Travellers within Irish society but also supported nomadism as an expression of identity.
From the 1960s onwards, many Travellers, like many settled people, moved en masse from rural areas to urban centres in search of work in jobs where they lacked skills. Traveller families living in camps in cities and towns were viewed as “problems” which, to use the parlance of the government’s 1960-1963 Commission on Itinerancy, would be solved through “absorption” into Irish society. The policy was to restrict opportunities for nomadism and permanently “settle” Travellers.
State policy focussed not on the needs of Travellers and how best they could be supported to build on their skills to provide for themselves and contribute to society, but on a misguided approach, at best a paternalistic charitable model, at worst a deeply racist one, which viewed a nomadic way of life as an anachronism and provided charity and welfare, not education and jobs.
State policy focussed not on the needs of Travellers and how best they could be supported to build on their skills to provide for themselves and contribute to society, but on a misguided approach, at best a paternalistic charitable model, at worst a deeply racist one, which viewed a nomadic way of life as an anachronism and provided charity and welfare, not education and jobs. This approach that limited expectations for Travellers in education solely to their receiving religious sacraments condemned many Travellers to further dependency on welfare, charity and intergenerational unemployment and propelled some into lives of crime.
This deep-rooted anti-Traveller racism, coupled with the loss of Traveller’s traditional roles from the 1960s onwards (and the fact that Travellers did not have numbers in one area to elect their own representatives) led to assimilation policies to try and “solve the Traveller problem” (link to ITM review of Commission doc). As we can see these failed policies led to two processes which are mutually reinforcing, which Traveller groups can see in continued effect today
Challenging Racism- what can people do?
What steps can be taken? For information on how to take an equality case to the Workplace Relations Commission, visit their website or download the Irish Human Rights Equality Commission (IHREC) guide to the equal status act here.
The Irish Traveller Movement legal pack also has steps on how to enforce your rights which can be downloaded from our publication section here (link to key reports part of resources & publications)
The ITM and ENAR Ireland have produced a guide to reporting racism on Facebook which can be downloaded here (link to key reports)
iReport is a reporting system for the people, communities and organisations of Ireland to document racist incidents that are occurring nationwide which is organised by ENAR Ireland. ITM as a member of ENAR encourages Travellers to log all instances of anti-Traveller racism with iReport
Challenging Racism at an institutional level
Challenging institutional racism is much more complex as it is based on creating a respect for Traveller culture, recognition of Traveller ethnicity and creating new policies (or undoing old ones) which would build trust between Travellers and non-Travellers, by delivering services that promoted an inclusive, equal society. This work has always been at the core of ITM- Ethnicity recognition (link to Traveller ethnicity page) and building an intercultural society.
Given that we are talking about changing society and embedded beliefs, stereotypes, service delivery and societal values, this requires a collective approach from Travellers and Traveller organisations to effect change. For more information on how to get involved in this work, visit our membership section.